The Tide Is Turning in Iraq
The tribal movement against al Qaeda in Anbar province has spread to other parts of the country.
The initial concept of the "surge" strategy in Iraq was to secure Baghdad and its immediate environs, which is why its proper name was the "Baghdad Security Plan." But as President Bush pointed out during his surprise trip to Iraq, operations and events on the ground are already showing successes well beyond Baghdad in Anbar, Diyala and Salahaddin provinces--formerly al Qaeda strongholds and hotbeds of the Sunni insurgency.
Considering the speed with which these successes have developed, and the rapidly growing grass-roots movement among Iraqis to support the effort, there is every reason to be optimistic about the prospects for establishing security in Iraq, and every reason to continue supporting the current strategy.
The first major combat operation of the surge, Operation Phantom Thunder, began on June 15 and accomplished its primary objectives. American troops and Iraqi Security Forces eliminated all of al Qaeda's sanctuaries in the Baghdad belts, including its urban stronghold in Baqubah. U.S. forces cleared Dora, al Qaeda's stronghold in western Baghdad. They established an extensive net of outposts in former enemy safe havens, degraded the capabilities of Shiite militias, and dramatically reduced sectarian violence and spectacular attacks in and around the capital.
Phantom Thunder was the first coherent campaign aimed at all of the major al Qaeda strongholds at once. As a result, terrorists could not move from one safe haven to another. Iraqi and coalition forces killed, wounded and captured thousands of them.
Six months ago, insurgents operated freely around Baghdad's belts. Now U.S. and Iraqi forces limit them to discrete areas, more distant from urban centers, where they cannot easily defend themselves, or support one another or their vehicle-bomb network.
Smaller groups who escaped from their safe havens during combat operations generally fled along the Tigris and Diyala River valleys. The remnants of al Qaeda in western Baghdad can no longer quickly reinforce their positions from outside or within the city.
Gens. David Petraeus and Raymond Odierno followed up Phantom Thunder with Phantom Strike. The new campaign, launched on Aug. 13, aims to prevent terrorists and militias from reconstituting their forces in Baghdad, its belts or elsewhere. U.S. and Iraqi forces are moving along the river valleys to destroy the remnants of enemy groups and eliminate any new safe havens they try to establish. Their operations are also preventing Shiite militias from taking over territory al Qaeda once controlled.
Phantom Strike involves coalition and Iraqi forces throughout central Iraq. U.S. forces are clearing a wedge of terrain between the Tigris and Diyala Rivers north of Baghdad and holding those river lines. Operation Lightning Hammer, part of Phantom Strike, cleared 50 villages in the palm groves of the Diyala River valley, permitting U.S. and Iraqi forces to establish a combat outpost 15 miles northeast of Baqubah to secure the area. U.S. and Iraqi forces have captured Iranian-supported extremist leaders on the Tigris River's east bank, and they are striking al Qaeda in Balad, Samarra and Tikrit.
Meanwhile, Phantom Strike has dismantled a vehicle-bomb network in central Baghdad. And to the south of the city U.S. forces are destroying remnants of al Qaeda in Arab Jabour and Salman Pak--both al Qaeda safe havens just months ago.
Skillful combat--and skillful negotiation--have transformed the area formerly known as "the triangle of death" into a region of dawning, if precarious, stability. As coalition forces consolidate their gains in these areas, they are also striking Shiite militia sanctuaries east of Baghdad and further south and east along the Tigris River valley. Gen. Odierno and his division commanders cleared territory gradually throughout Phantom Thunder and Phantom Strike, so that they could hold it after clearing operations.
The tribal movement begun in Anbar has spread throughout central Iraq, as thousands of Sunnis have either volunteered to join the Iraqi Security Forces or formed local defense groups under Iraqi government and coalition auspices. These "concerned citizens" groups springing up throughout central Iraq have not been previously observed on this scale in the country. They permit U.S. and Iraqi forces to hold territory they have cleared more effectively. The volunteers who make up these groups, recruited and deployed in their own neighborhoods, have incentives to protect their families and communities. They are not independent militias, however. They are partnered with Iraqi Security Forces and coalition forces.
The Baqubah Guardians, one such group, recently helped the Iraqi police in that city fight off al Qaeda insurgents until coalition helicopters arrived. The Taji Neighborhood Watch association searched hundreds of homes for weapons caches. Iraq has hitherto lacked a local policing initiative, relying instead on national and regional models. The concerned-citizen groups are filling this gap while the U.S. and the Iraqi governments work to expand and improve the Iraqi Security Forces that many of these volunteers hope to join.
There is every prospect of extending this movement further. Residents of freshly cleared Arab Jabour have volunteered to join the Iraqi Security Forces, indicating that the population there feels increasingly secure from terrorists. Tribal leaders in the Diyala River valley, many of whom have fought with one another since 2006, met immediately after Operation Lightning Hammer ended and swore to fight terrorism and work together as a single tribe.
Tribal leaders encourage local citizens to join the Iraqi Security Forces, working as volunteers before they are accepted into the police or army to identify weapons caches and terrorists to Iraqi or coalition forces. U.S. commanders hold tribal leaders accountable when they fail to secure their area properly. U.S. forces take fingerprints and retina scans and record the serial numbers of the weapons of citizen-group members. This helps them vet the groups for dangerous insurgents and hold accountable anyone who turns against the coalition.
The Iraqi government determines whether or not the volunteers are accepted into the security forces. In mid-August, the government enrolled 1,700 new Iraqi policemen from the mostly Sunni former insurgent enclave of Abu Ghraib.
The destruction of al Qaeda sanctuaries has permitted coalition forces to focus more on the violent Shiite militia groups funded by Iran. These groups are responsible for kidnapping numerous Iraqi government officials, running sectarian death squads and conducting mortar and rocket attacks against the Green Zone.
The Iranian Revolutionary Guard's elite Quds Force and Hezbollah have organized, trained and funded this network of Iraqi special groups, which could not sustain themselves without foreign support. Offensive operations targeting these groups have intensified, a development also made possible by the increasing cooperation of the Maliki government. Coalition and Iraqi forces have been redeployed to disrupt the groups' communication and supply routes east and south of Baghdad. A multi-phase campaign to capture or kill secret cell leaders is also underway across central and southern Iraq and in Baghdad.
In short, American forces are in the midst of a large, complex campaign to defeat al Qaeda, dismantle Iranian-backed Shiite criminal militias, support a growing grass-roots movement in the Sunni population, and create space for political progress at the national level. Al Qaeda is not defunct by any means. It continues to fight and is trying to re-establish itself. It will certainly try to conduct a large-scale terror campaign to coincide with Gen. Petraeus's report to Americans this week on the progress of the surge.
The Shiite militias seem more daunted. Moqtada al Sadr has ordered his Mahdi Army fighters to cease operations against U.S. and Iraqi forces--from his refuge in Iran.
Significant challenges remain in establishing security, building up Iraqi forces capable of maintaining it and helping the Iraqi government achieve reconciliation and unity. But few expected the progress made so far. The tide in Iraq is clearly turning, as the Iraqi people are voting with their lives to fight with us against terrorists and militias. Now is not the time to give up the fight.
Ms. Kagan is an affiliate of Harvard's John M. Olin Institute of Strategic Studies and the president of the Institute for the Study of War in Washington.